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Why Minneapolis Lakers' loss to Globetrotters was so meaningful

With the Rams rebooting in Los Angeles, ESPN.com presents a series exploring the remnants departed teams have left behind in the cities they abandoned.

The Harlem Globetrotters are seen today as an entertainment-first team that couldn't compete against the NBA's best in a legitimate competition. And if the Minneapolis Lakers are remembered at all beyond the Twin Cities, it's usually for being the NBA's first dynasty behind 6-foot-10 George Mikan or moving to Los Angeles in 1960 and establishing a winning tradition there.

But the basketball world was a dramatically different place when the all-white Minneapolis Lakers first played the all-black Globetrotters on Feb. 19, 1948. The exhibition was the opening game of a doubleheader that also featured the Chicago Stags against the New York Knicks in a Basketball Association of America game. A sellout crowd of 17,823 packed the old Chicago Stadium.

"Little did we realize it would turn out to be one of the most memorable basketball games of all time," Max Winter, the Lakers franchise's first general manager, told Minneapolis-based author Stew Thornley.

Segregation was finally on its way out in basketball. But the Lakers-Globetrotters series gave it one last shove.

Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball's color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but segregated teams were still the norm in the alphabet-soup world of pro basketball for three more years. A dizzying array of competing leagues and independently run teams had come and gone by the time the National Basketball League and the BAA merged to form the NBA in 1949.

By then, all-white and all-black clubs had been playing against each other since the 1910s and often felt no compunction about cashing in on the sort of polarized racial politics that came with the concepts of crowning a "real" world champion or anointing a "Great White Hope" in boxing.

To settle things, the Chicago Herald-American newspaper in 1939 began sponsoring an annual invitational event called the World Professional Basketball Tournament. The first two clubs to win it were independently run all-black teams -- the New York Rens and the Globetrotters -- but an NBL team was victorious seven of the 10 times the tournament was held.

So interest was high going into the first Globetrotters-Lakers showdown in February of 1948. The Lakers had just arrived in Minneapolis that season thanks to a group of Minnesota businessmen who bought and relocated the defunct Detroit Gems of the NBL. The team became an instant powerhouse after picking up Mikan through a dispersal draft of players from the short-lived Professional Basketball League of America.

The Globetrotters were the more established and accomplished team by then. But they didn't regularly face anyone like Mikan, the greatest player of his generation.

The Globetrotters' 103-game winning streak seemed in jeopardy when the Lakers' center scored 18 points and Minneapolis took a 32-23 halftime lead. But that's when the undersized Globetrotters changed tactics and gave Goose Tatum, their 6-foot-3 center, double-team help.

Mikan scored only six points in the final two quarters and grew so frustrated he earned a technical foul. The Globetrotters finally tied the game at 59. When they got the ball back, Marques Haynes, still renowned as perhaps the best ball handler of all time, dribbled nearly all of the final 90 seconds off the clock before passing to Ermer Robinson, who launched a long-distance shot just before the final buzzer sounded.

The ball hit nothing but net. The Globetrotters won 61-59.

"Some of the Lakers I talked to -- I think it's kinda sour grapes: 'Aw, we weren't trying that hard. We didn't really care.' No, they really got beat," said Thornley, who began researching the Lakers-Globetrotters game in 1988, when many of the players were still alive. "After they got beat first time, I don't think they didn't care the second time. ... At that time, the Harlem Globetrotters [and] the New York Rens could play with anybody."

The Globetrotters and Lakers ended up facing off a total of eight times, the last in 1958, with Minneapolis winning the last six matchups.

"Those Lakers-Trotters games definitely contributed to the integration of the league. The Knicks' [owner] Ned Irish needed a center, and he wanted Sweetwater Clifton. He threatened to quit the league if the NBA didn't integrate."

Basketball historian Claude Johnson

In the spring of 1950, Globetrotters alum Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton became one of the first three African-American players to join the NBA when he signed with the Knicks. (They had also signed the league's first non-white player, Japanese-American Wataru Misaka, in the 1947-48 season).

The NBA's color line was finally broken.

"In terms of the biggest watershed moments, 1939 is probably the more significant milestone for African-Americans because the first-ever world champion of basketball was an all-black team," said basketball historian Claude Johnson, who runs an organization called Black Fives that is a treasure trove of information. "But those Lakers-Trotters games definitely contributed to the integration of the league. The Knicks' [owner] Ned Irish needed a center, and he wanted Sweetwater Clifton. He threatened to quit the league if the NBA didn't integrate."

How did that go over?

Laughing a little at how silly it sounds now, Johnson says: "Eddie Gottlieb of Philadelphia was angry when the vote was lost, and he made comments to ... [team] owners along the lines of, 'You guys don't know what you're doing, you dumb SOBs. You've ruined the game!'"

Re-invented it is more like it.